Saturday, September 27, 2008

European Day of Languages in Hyderabad

Here's the final version (15 Oct) of a press release that I recently put together (there's also an Esperanto version).

On the occasion of

European Day of Languages

European Language Mela

20 October 2008
The English and Foreign Languages University

Institutes in Hyderabad which teach European languages will come together on 20 October to celebrate the European Day of Languages. The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) will host a "European Language Mela".

"The event is the first of its kind in India, and will showcase the rich diversity of languages in Europe," said Professor Abhai Maurya, Vice-Chancellor, EFLU. He added, "The event takes on added significance in 2008, which the United Nations has declared International Year of Languages."

Participating institutes include Alliance Française, Goethe Zentrum, Osmania University, Universal Esperanto Association, and University of Hyderabad. As many as eight European languages will be presented – Croatian, English, Esperanto, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish – followed by a discussion.

Over the next few months, several Language Days are being planned by these institutes to present these languages and their cultures in greater depth.


Launched in 2001, the European Day of Languages, which is traditionally celebrated on or around 26 September, promotes linguistic diversity as a tool for greater intercultural understanding. There are over 200 languages indigenous to Europe and many more are spoken by citizens whose family origin is from other continents.

Some factoids:

  • The mother tongues spoken by most people in Europe are Russian, German, English, French and Italian, in that order.

  • The non-European languages most widely used on European territory are Arabic, Chinese and Hindi, each with its own writing system.

  • Russia (148 million inhabitants) has by far the highest number of languages spoken on its territory: from 130 to 200 depending on the criteria.

  • Most countries in Europe have a number of regional or minority languages – some of these have obtained official status.

  • Due to the influx of migrants and refugees, Europe has become largely multilingual. In London alone some 300 languages are spoken (Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish, Berber, Hindi, Punjabi, etc.).

Bilingualism. Let us recognize, use and cherish this resource. Bilingualism brings all kinds of benefits. Being bilingual can enhance your chances of successfully learning other languages. Learning a second language makes it easier to learn a third. Bilinguals may also have some advantages in thinking: there is evidence that they make faster progress than monolinguals in certain areas of early cognitive development and are in many ways more creative in their linguistic skills.

Bilinguals can communicate with a wider variety of people. Since bilinguals can experience two or more cultures in an intimate way, their ability can make them more sensitive in communication and more ready to overcome cultural barriers and to build cultural bridges. There are also important practical issues: bilinguals enjoy a potential economic advantage because a larger number of jobs becomes available to them. It is also increasingly accepted that multilingual companies have a competitive edge over monolingual ones.

Minority languages. Thus, in a globalizing world high-level multilingualism is very desirable. The conditions to achieve high-level multilingualism are quite favourable for the big languages. A 10-year schooling in the mother-tongue lays a solid cognitive foundation on which other languages can be effectively acquired. However, as in the rest of the world, in Europe too the situation of the smaller languages is far more uncertain – indeed, for the world as a whole, experts estimate that over this century, at least half of the world’s languages, and perhaps more, will die out. Within two generations all traces of a language can disappear when it is not spoken at home, and when children are not taught in it at school. It is this urgency that has prompted the United Nations to declare 2008 “International Year of Languages”.

As a community of nations committed to defending human rights – including linguistic human rights – Europe is seriously discussing strategies to ensure these rights for all its citizens. A range of proposals exist: initiatives to encourage citizens to learn the languages of the neighbours; a 'simplified' English; adopting a national language as one's own; declaring a national language as the official European language; and learning a planned language like Esperanto as a universal second language.

Europe's success in defending linguistic human rights, promoting linguistic diversity and democracy, and achieving a high-level multilingualism will be watched with great interest in other multilingual mosaics such as India.

As we – with our own complex mix of languages! – gather to celebrate Europe's linguistic diversity, these are some of the larger issues that we invite you to ponder over during the seminar. Indeed, we hope that our celebrations and deliberations will continue through the various European Language Days that we plan to organize during the next few months in Hyderabad!

Some useful websites

Monday, September 22, 2008

Dismal schooling in Rajasthan

In the Sunday Magazine of The Hindu, yet another depressing article on primary schooling in India. Filmmaker Umesh Aggarwal's new film "Divided Colours of a Nation" takes us, as Kalpana Sharma tells us,

to a rural school in Barmer, Rajasthan. There are just two teachers for five classes. One of them is also the principal. On the day the filmmaker goes to the school, neither of the two teachers is present and only 25 out of the 188 students are at school. Not far away in a Bhil village, he goes to a government school. There are 90 students in Standards I to V but only one teacher. Yet another school on the Indo-Pak border in Rajasthan is deserted at 12.30 p.m. There are no children and the only teacher has been missing for eight days. Little wonder then that 50 per cent of students in Rajasthan have failed the Standard 10 examination in the last 10 years.

While this is the situation in distant villages, things were not very different in a government school not far from the national capital. Here, there were 18 classes, but nine had no teachers. Half way through the term, the children still had not received their textbooks.

I wonder what language the Bhil children were being taught in. Probably Rajasthani (or one of the langauges of that cluster). Almost certainly, the medium of instruction was not Bhili - or any of the related languages of the Bhil language group. The 2001 census tells us that there are 9.58 million speakers of Bhili. And Ethnologue reports: "Literacy rate in first language: 1% to 5%. Literacy rate in second language: 10%."

Friday, September 19, 2008

Just published: Why Languages Matter

Just published by SIL International: Why Languages Matter: Meeting Millennium Development Goals through local languages. From the Unesco release:

Published in this 2008 International Year of Languages, “Why Languages Matter” provides readers with real life stories about how literacy programs in local languages are helping to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

In Indonesia for example, a program in mother-tongue prompted villagers to replant mangroves to stem the destruction of coastal areas. In Togo, a farmer began a chicken breeding business after learning about how to manage finances and resources in an Ifè adult literacy class. In indigenous communities of Mexico, bilingual teachers are noting that students who begin primary school in their mother tongue acquire literacy skills more quickly. In Benin’s Waama community, literacy classes in mother tongue are giving people access to basic health information and leading to improved overall health.

The brochure also highlights how partnerships can revitalize local languages. In Viet Nam for example, speakers of several closely-related languages now have a font that is usable on computers and the Internet, an initiative supported by UNESCO.

The MDGs were officially adopted by 189 United Nations member states in 2000. These goals seek to eradicate extreme poverty, universalize primary education, promote gender equality, improve health and ensure environmental sustainability by 2015.


Related links

Download “Why Languages Matter” a SIL International publication

2008 International year of Languages

Languages in Education

Education and the Millennium Development Goals

Monday, September 8, 2008

Literacy and Mother-tongue medium education

September 8 is International Literacy Day. The Wikipedia article tells us that "Some 774 million adults lack minimum literacy skills; one in five adults is still not literate and two-thirds of them are women; 72.1 million children are out-of-school and many more attend irregularly or drop out."

I blogged (in Esperanto) about this in April this year. An article had then just appeared in The Guardian which I drew upon. Grim stuff.

Unesco's focus this year is on Literacy and Health: "For instance, a study conducted in 32 countries shows that women with secondary education are five times more likely to be informed about HIV/AIDS than women who are illiterate. Another example: the rate of infant mortality is higher when the mother can neither read nor write."

Amazingly enough, neither the article in The Guardian, nor the Unesco release even mention mother-tongue medium education (MTME). It's not as if MTME's role is unknown - as the Universal Esperanto Association declares:

It has been shown in many large-scale studies in several countries that if indigenous and minority children have their education mainly using their own languages as the teaching language for the first 6-8 years (with good teaching of the dominant language as a second language, given by bilingual teachers), their general school achievement is better and they learn the dominant language better than if their teaching is through the medium of the dominant language.

So, the research is all there, and indeed, has been there for some time - see "Mother tongue first: Children's right to learn in their own languages". Similarly, UNDP's Human Development Report of 2004 tells us that of the children in sub-Saharan Africa who go to school, only 13% have access to mother-tongue medium education. That percentage for indigenous peoples in India is practically zero.

The 38% of India's adivasis who are literate (including the 14% literate adivasi women), can read only in the main regional language.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Top 10 endangered languages

Peter Austin, a linguist at SOAS, presents a tantalizing list of strange and endangered wordbeasts. Excerpts:

"Jeru (or Great Andamanese) is spoken by fewer than 20 people on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean.... The languages of the Andamans cannot be shown to be related to any other languages spoken on earth.

"... The Khoisan languages are remarkable for having click sounds – the | symbol is pronounced like the English interjection tsk! tsk! used to express pity or shame. The closest relative of N|u is !Xóõ (also called Ta'a and spoken by about 4,000 people) which has the most sounds of any language on earth: 74 consonants, 31 vowels, and four tones (voice pitches)....

"Yuchi nouns have 10 genders, indicated by word endings: six for Yuchi people (depending on kinship relations to the person speaking), one for non-Yuchis and animals, and three for inanimate objects (horizontal, vertical, and round)....

"Oro Win is one of only five languages known to make regular use of a sound that linguists call "a voiceless dental bilabially trilled affricate"... similar... to the brrr sound we make in English to signal that the weather is cold."

In the discussion at Language Hat, responding to the following query:

"How do you save a language? It's not like breeding a few more pandas and giving them extra bamboo shoots. You can't keep the last two speakers of !Xóõ at the London Zoo."

Austin remarks:

"Outsiders, including linguists, can't "save" a language -- only the community where it is spoken can decide to do so by continuing to speak the language and passing it on to their children. Linguists can assist with the process of revitalisation by supporting communities in their desires and helping to produce materials (books, dictionaries, language lessons) and new contexts for language use (eg. radio, pop music). There are numerous examples where language shift has been reversed and endangered languages have grown in size and become less endangered, eg. Welsh, Maori, Hawaiian, and many examples where communities are struggling right now to make this happen, eg. Ainu, Gamilaraay (an Australian Aboriginal language). In many cases, dealing with pressing social and economic issues in minority communities like health, environmental degradation, and land ownership goes along with linguistic and cultural revitalisation, so the zoo is exactly the wrong analogy to bring up."